Atmosphere at the 2017 James Beard Awards Gala at the Rainbow Room in New York

Atmosphere at the 2017 James Beard Awards Gala at the Rainbow Room in New York

Winners of both the Peabody and Webby Awards were announced in recent weeks. To enter both competitions, assuming a freelancer only wants to enter a single category, will run upward of $500. The Online Journalism Awards cost up to $175 per entry. The National Magazine Awards cost $395 per entry for non-members. The James Beard Awards typically cost $150. The Edward R. Murrow Awards can cost freelancers up to $250. The Gracie Awards cost between $180 and $240 to enter, if you meet the early-bird deadline. If you wanted to enter stories in all these awards in the same year, you’re looking at a total of nearly $2,000. And this is just a small list of the awards out there.

Staff writers depend on their publications to front the costs of these award applications—most outlets have money set aside for these kinds of fees. But freelancers can’t necessarily rely on their editors entering their work for awards—staff editors are generally more likely to enter the work of their full-time employees over a freelancer to whom they feel less responsible. Which means that freelancers are often left to their own devices, and bank accounts, when it comes to award entries.

Not only that, but some awards have rules that (often accidentally) disadvantage freelancers. As the workforce shifts more and more to one based on freelance labor, newsrooms and award-granting groups should consider the impact that their rules and fees have on who gets the chance to enter and win awards.

I’ve been freelancing for nearly 10 years now and have spent thousands of my own dollars to enter my work into competitions. Often, I will decide not to enter, because the chances of winning don’t seem high enough to justify the cost of entry. And I’m not alone. “I remember looking at the National Magazine Awards and being like, ‘Oh my god,’” says Karen K. Ho, a freelancer based in New York. Even people who run awards encounter this problem. “I don’t apply to AHCJ [Association of Healthcare Journalists] awards because they cost money,” says Alla Katsnelson, who is the co-chair of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) awards committee along with being a freelancer herself.

Freelancers often don’t have a few hundred dollars laying around to use for award entries. And if they do, they face a dilemma: use that money to enter a contest, or use it to get started on the next project that they might want to pitch? Often the latter wins out. “I’m going to use that money for funding my next project, or for tiding me over when a check is late,” says Ho.

It’s tempting to say that awards don’t matter, but they’re more than just a pat on the back. Winning an award can be especially impactful for a freelancer trying to break into the industry and pitch editors they haven’t worked for. Ho points out that this is particularly important in the context of diversifying the newsroom. “Why aren’t there more Asians in American magazines? It’s not for lack of pipeline; it’s that the money is terrible and the opportunities are limited. If you’re Asian you already have all these things stacked up against you and your parents are like, ‘You want to borrow $400 for an award? No. You’re going to use that money to support your family or go home for Christmas.’” The freelancers who can easily afford to enter awards are those who are already established or who have external help with their finances, and those people tend to be disproportionately white and male.

Even when a freelancer does have money to enter a contest, sometimes the rules can trip them up. The NASW Awards have a rule that sets a limit of one entry per category per author. But freelancers don’t always know if their editors have submitted pieces on their behalf (most editors don’t inform freelance writers that they’re entering their work, in my experience). Which means that freelancers could inadvertently be disqualifying submissions of their work by submitting their own choices for an award. And while it’s not common, this does happen. Katsnelson tells me that over each of the last three years they’ve had anywhere between one and eight duplicate entries out of over 300 submissions.

At NASW, in cases where a writer is entered twice, once themselves and once by an editor, they throw out the editor’s contribution and keep the writer’s. But there is no limit for publications on how many pieces they can submit. Which means that one publication can enter as many pieces as they want, while freelancers who might write for lots of publications are limited to picking a single piece. And Katsnelson says she notices the disparity. “We have publications that can flood our submissions for each category, but writers have to be selective. Looking through the publications list for this year I was like, ‘Oh, I keep seeing the same ones.’” But for NASW, she says, opening up the rules to allow freelancers to submit as many pieces as they want could overwhelm them. Ultimately, they have to make choices about what they can handle.

There are some solutions to these problems. Award granting groups can follow the lead of the Canadian National Magazine Awards and offer a freelancer fund to help defray the cost of contest entries for independent journalists. Or, places could take a page from the James Beard Award, which last year waived its $150 entry fee for first-time applicants. When I asked Katselson if they’d consider letting freelancers enter more than one piece, she pointed out that it can be hard to tell who is freelance and who isn’t. “It would be complicated to have different rules for different types of submitters. There’s so much movement between staff and freelance  that it’s not clear to me how we would define those rules nor how we would oversee them—it’s tough to imagine we would have the bandwidth to do that.”

But even beyond a rule change, groups that advocate for journalists like the Online News Association or StudyHall could create a fund of their own to help support freelancers who might want to enter awards but can’t afford to. I myself have considered setting up a small fund that companies and successful staff journalists could contribute to and could then be used to help journalists pay for award entries. But that’s a whole lot of unpaid work to take on as a freelancer that I could be using on a story that might make me enough money to apply for an award.

In the longer run, award-granting organizations should do an internal review of their policies, and see if they’re accidentally creating a system that disadvantages independents. Most of the award procedures on the books today were developed at a time when most journalists had steady staff jobs where award submissions were part of the budget. That’s no longer the case, and awards should reevaluate accordingly.

Corrections: Her middle initial was added and Karen K. Ho’s place of residence was changed from Toronto to New York.

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